The False Spring
2012: A disaster of historic proportions
by Madeline Strong Diehl
In March, garlands of white and yellow blossoms festooned the hundreds of apple trees that have been carefully planted over the past eighty years at the Lutz family's orchard, located about five miles southwest of Saline. Normally the blossoms are an encouraging and uplifting sight--but not when they arrive three weeks early, as they did this March. A series of no less than fifteen frost-freeze events followed in April and May, killing almost all the blossoms in Washtenaw County--and the nascent fruit they harbored. Though no one is yet willing to be quoted as saying it, 2012 is shaping up to be the worst apple season on record, not only for Washtenaw County, but for the entire state.
"I've walked and walked all through here, and haven't seen a single apple," says seventy-three-year-old Ruth Broesamle, tears rolling down her cheeks as she surveys row after row of barren trees in the Lutz orchard. "I've never seen anything like this."
Lutzes have farmed here on Macon Road since 1882. Ruth's brother, Bill Lutz, tended the orchard and nearby farm until his death last fall. Now carrying on the family legacy falls on Ruth's son, John, a confident thirty-four-year-old with a full beard and a DeKalb Corn baseball cap.
Though John works full time for the county road commission, he farmed side by side with his uncle for years. His fiancee, Tammy Polzin, works as a bus driver for the Saline school district during the school year, but she also helps out after work, and so do her three daughters. Still, there's too much work to go around: acres and acres of wild wheat surround the trees, standing more than three feet tall. "I don't have any money to hire anybody to tend it," John explains.
"Don't forget your four-legged mowers," his mother quips. They had to sell Bill's dairy herd after his death, but still have twenty heifers.
"Can't let them in," John shoots back. "I just sprayed the orchard."
Adding insult to
injury, apple growers must keep spending money to maintain their orchards, even though they won't get any income till fall 2013. And the Lutz farm doesn't have insurance. "Bill didn't believe in getting insurance," John says, "and we would have had to buy it last fall, before he died."
There is a lot that fruit growers can do to ensure the success of their crops. But past a certain point, they are totally at the mercy of nature--and this year, nature was merciless. The historic magnitude of this year's apple bust is directly proportional to the historic spikes in temperature in March. The average temperature for the month was 50.7 degrees, 14.2 degrees higher than normal. In a record book that goes back to the 1880s, says state climatologist Jeff Andresen, such an early spring is "unprecedented."
In mid-May, Diane Smith, spokeswoman for the Michigan Apple Committee, said the quasi-governmental organization would not be making any official statement about crop damage until June. But from talking with local growers, it appears that almost the entire crop has been lost. "I haven't heard of anyone else with apples," says Scott Robertello of Kapnick Orchards in Britton, which sells at the Chelsea and Saline markets on Saturdays through the summer and into the fall. In May, Robertello hadn't yet decided about selling at the Wednesday Chelsea market. He explains that the orchard's founders bought the highest land they could find in Lenawee County in the 1950s to reduce vulnerability to frost. Robertello was the only farmer contacted for this article who had any apples--and even he lost 60 to 70 percent of his crop.
Washington politicians are touring the frost-hit orchards, and growers hope that the state will be declared a disaster zone. They also hope that the 2012 farm bill, shepherded by Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow, will include more financial aid for growers of apples and other specialty crops.
Joan Lutchka, market master of the Bushel Basket Market at the
Chelsea Fairgrounds, said it's not just apples that were destroyed this year--it's the whole rural culture around them. "All my strawberry growers were wiped out, too," says Lutchka. "Without apples and strawberries here, not as many customers are going to come to this market."
But John Broesamle is undaunted. In May he was determined to find a way to come up with enough money to plant field crops, like pumpkins, so people will still have reason to drive out to the picturesque centennial farm come fall.
"I'm seriously considering coming home to farm full-time," he says. "We're looking at ways to supplement the fruit crop. Tammy wants to build a greenhouse so we can have a vegetable crop by this time next year.
"I can't tell you exactly how yet, but we're going to make it through this."
[Originally published in June, 2012.]